Progress towards 'Gigabit Europe' is slow, with UK also lagging

Fiber to the Premises just a premise for many

Very few households and businesses across Euope are getting Gigabit broadband speeds regardless of official claims, and the UK is trailing in key areas - especially FTTP coverage.

This is according to analysis by network intelligence outfit Ookla, which largely focuses on the European Commission's Digital Decade policy program and its efforts to improve connectivity across the EU by 2030. The UK, which left the EU in 2020, is also included in some of the comparisons.

One of the EC's Digital Decade objectives is Gigabit connectivity for everyone, which relies on the rollout of fiber-optic networks, especially fiber to the premises (FTTP), providing a fiber connection direct to a subscriber's home.

Citing data from research company Omdia, Ookla found that many EU countries appear to be doing well on this score, at least in terms of households that fall within FTTP coverage. Romania, for example, has nearly 97.7 percent of households able to access fiber, which is attributed to government-backed fixed infrastructure projects such as RoNet and special attention given to rural and disadvantaged areas.

This does not mean that 97.7 percent of Romanian households have a fiber connection, only that this percentage of households lies within areas where it is available. Only two European countries have less than 50 percent of households in areas with FTTP; one is the UK with 42.9 percent, while Germany is at the bottom with just 21.3 percent.

However, the take-up rate tells a different story, with Ookla claiming that only 13.76 percent of households in the EU were subscribed to fixed broadband that should be capable of at least 1Gbps as of 2022.

The UK's take-up rate, meaning the proportion of households within fiber network coverage actively connected to fiber services, is also relatively low at 20.5 percent. Ookla called for a "required industry focus on selling fiber subscriptions."

However, BT's infrastructure division Openreach already has such a scheme, offering discounts to ISPs that get subscribers to sign up for fiber, and this has met with criticism from other network operators who claim it discourages ISPs from using their infrastructure.

Regardless, it appears the UK, with 20.5 percent fiber take-up, is beating most of Europe on this particular metric, despite having less than half the population able to access it.

There is also "significant disparity" between different EU nations, with only five countries beating the 13.76 percent EU average. France is leading with 39.94 percent, followed by Hungary at 29.81 percent, Romania at 23.35 percent Denmark at 18.66 percent, and Spain at 14.5 percent.

And to further complicate matters, Ookla claims that in reality, the proportion of users which are actually getting speeds of 1 Gbps is much, much lower; just 1.42 percent in France, 0.54 percent in Hungary, 0.1 percent in Romania, 0.03 percent in Denmark and 0.27 percent in Spain.

One contributing factor highlighted by Ookla is the state of home networking equipment. It claims that in markets where legacy broadband technology (such as DSL or coax cable) is being replaced by advanced cable and fiber connections, Wi-Fi performance can lag behind.

Wi-Fi speeds are typically 30-40 percent that of Ethernet, the company claims, indicating a need to "accelerate adoption of more advanced Wi-Fi technologies" and "optimize the home network environment."

In other words, Ookla is claiming that gigabit broadband users are being stymied by outdated home Wi-Fi that can't match the speed of the fat pipe bringing data in from the outside world, and that service providers need to pay more attention to home networking equipment.

This tallies with what Qualcomm was claiming recently at the launch of its 10G Fiber Gateway Platform, which introduces Wi-Fi 7 support and offers service providers more control over the home gateway, in order to optimize its configuration.

In terms of current median download speeds, which Ookla classifies as a standard metric for measuring performance, Denmark comes out best with 196.43 Mbps, followed by Spain with 176.08 Mbps. The UK languishes at second to bottom on 79.08 Mbps, with Italy on 63.05 Mbps.

Ookla highlighted the role of alternative network providers (AltNets) in boosting the adoption of fiber across the EU and surrounding countries (it mentions the EU39 region comprising the EU27, UK, Iceland and others such as Switzerland and Turkey).

It analysed the data to determine if there is a correlation between the number of active ISPs and the speed of the transition to fiber networks, but concluded the relationship is "not straightforward" and varies significantly depending on each country's competitive landscape and government initiatives – as you might expect.

It claims that countries like the UK and Poland, which have many ISPs, are leading the way in AltNet-driven fiber initiatives. In the UK, AltNets delivered the top speed in areas such as London, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester, it said.

Despite progress towards the Digital Decade goals, obstacles remain in convincing consumers to fully transition to fiber services, Ookla said. Ironically, it quoted a survey conducted by Orange in rural areas of France which revealed that 42 percent of users stated their current internet was sufficient for their needs - which does make you wonder who the Digital Decade goals are meant to be for. ®

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